It’s easy to break down truly great seasons from the superstars. If anything, the hardest part is deciding which Mike Trout season is the best, or which Barry Bonds, or which Albert Pujols. The real fun is the random superstar season that comes out of nowhere, a player who isn’t a Hall of Famer but, for one season, truly played like one.
So, today at the Thirty, we take a look at the great random seasons from non-Hall of Famers from the last 40 years. These players won’t be in Cooperstown, but their teams’ fans will never forget the year everything fell perfectly.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Key fact: Led MLB with 10 complete games
Hentgen was always a perfectly fine pitcher, one who gave you a lot of innings, didn’t strike out a lot of guys and kept the ball in the ballpark. But in 1996 he was brilliant, winning 20 games, giving up less than a homer every nine innings and tossing a stunning 265 2/3 innings. He ended up with a Cy Young Award that you probably already forgot he won.
Orioles: Brady Anderson, OF, 1996
Key fact: 37 2B, 5th-most in a 50-HR season
Anderson hit 16 homers in 1995. He hit 18 in 1997. But he hit 50 in 1996. Anderson was more than a power hitter, though: He was a great fielder, walked a bunch and even led the league in getting hit by pitches.
Rays: Fernando Rodney, RHP, 2012
Key fact: 0.60 ERA, 2nd-lowest in a season since saves became official in 1969 (min. 50 IP)
Rodney is mostly known for his longevity, but it shouldn’t be overlooked how truly brilliant he was in 2012. He had 48 saves that year, but what’s really impressive is that in 76 appearances, he gave up only five earned runs.
Red Sox: John Valentin, INF, 1995
Key fact: Led position players with 8.3 WAR
In 1995, a year in which Albert Belle hit 50 homers and Mo Vaughn won the MVP Award, it was Valentin, of all people, who led all position players in WAR (per Baseball Reference).
Yankees: Chien-Ming Wang, RHP, 2006
Key fact: Allowed 12 HR, fewest among qualified pitchers
Wang wasn’t always the most popular Yankee, but in 2006 he won 19 games and led a team that won 97 games in WAR (6.0). In a sign of just how much the game has changed, he managed to do this while striking out 76 batters in 218 innings. In 2019 three Yankees relievers (Aroldis Chapman, Tommy Kahnle and Adam Ottavino) struck out more batters than that.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Indians: Travis Hafner, DH, 2006
Key fact: 1.097 OPS, 5th-highest in a qualified season in Indians history
We wrote about Pronk recently, about a three-year stretch of baseball that stands with the all-time greats, but of those years, this one was the best, as he led the league in slugging (.659), OPS (1.097), and OPS+ (181).
Key fact: Led AL with 48 HR, 1st Royals player to lead his league in HR
Remember when Steve Balboni held the Royals’ all-time homers-in-a-season record for more than 30 years? Soler smashed past it, and Mike Moustakas’ new record, in 2019.
Tigers: Aníbal Sánchez, RHP, 2013
Key fact: Led qualified AL pitchers with 2.57 ERA
The team had both Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer (not to mention fellow future Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello), but Sánchez (2.57 ERA) was the best starter on this team.
Twins: Joe Mays, RHP, 2001
Key fact: 143 ERA+, tied for lead among qualified AL pitchers
Did you know there was a year when Joe Mays would tie Hall of Famer Mike Mussina for the AL lead in ERA+ among starters? Joe Mays!
White Sox: Carlos Quentin, OF, 2008
Key fact: Missed final 26 games of season with a wrist injury and finished with 36 homers, one fewer than Miguel Cabrera for AL lead
Remember that one year when Carlos Quentin, after barely registering for two years in Arizona, came to Chicago and tore the place up for 36 homers, a .394 OBP and fifth place in MVP voting? Well, it happened. I swear.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Key fact: Led infielders with 15 Outs Above Average
Prior to 2020’s shortened schedule, who was the only Angels teammate of Mike Trout who ever put up more WAR (per Baseball Reference) in the same season as Trout? Sure, it required Trout only playing 114 games, but still, way to go, Andrelton.
Astros: Morgan Ensberg, 3B, 2005
Key fact: 6.3 WAR, 6th among NL position players
Ensberg’s 2005 teammates included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio and Roy Oswalt. That year — a year the Astros made the World Series, we remind you — Ensberg was better than all of them, leading the team in homers (36), RBIs (101) and OPS (.945).
Key fact: Only player to start all 162 games
It remains to be seen if Semien will ever repeat this performance. For now it looks like a peak … or an outlier. (By the way, we’re giving Bob Welch career points here: His 27 wins in 1990 remain remarkable, but he also got NL MVP votes three years prior, so it’s not so crazy.)
Mariners: Bret Boone, 2B, 2001
Key fact: 8.8 WAR, 2nd in AL
This incredible Mariners year will always be known as the Ichiro year, and for good reason, but here’s where we remind you that according to such advanced stats as WAR (per Baseball Reference), Boone was the best player on this team in 2001. If you’re not a WAR person, well, sheesh, Boone also had 141 RBIs.
Key fact: 7.8 WAR, most by a Rangers pitcher in a single season
The answer here is either Minor … or teammate Lance Lynn … or Ken Hill’s underappreciated 1996 season. The three odd seasons featured the Rangers’ three best pitching performances of the last 40 years.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Lonnie Smith, LF, 1989
Key fact: Led position players with 8.8 WAR
Of all the Braves’ offensive seasons of the last 40 years, it’s somehow Smith’s that leads in all-time WAR. He also led the NL in on-base percentage … for a team that lost 97 games.
Marlins: Josh Johnson, RHP, 2010
Key fact: Led qualified pitchers with a 2.41 FIP
The notoriously oft-injured starter was brilliant when (rarely) healthy, and he was never better than he was one decade ago.
Mets: Lance Johnson, CF, 1996
Key fact: 227 hits, most in a season in Mets history
The One Dog led the Majors with 227 hits this year, and he had a whopping 21 triples, which also led the league.
Nationals: Alfonso Soriano, LF, 2006
Key fact: 6.1 WAR, 4th among NL position players
Did you know that Soriano’s 46 homers in 2006 are the most in franchise history? Did you realize that Soriano has 412 lifetime homers? This was the only year he was in Washington, though.
Phillies: John Denny, RHP, 1983
Key fact: Led pitchers with 7.4 WAR
Denny was a perfectly fine pitcher for the Cardinals, Indians, Phillies and Reds, but in 1983 he was masterful, winning the Cy Young Award and having a better year than all but one of Steve Carlton’s seasons. He still never made an All-Star Game.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Jeromy Burnitz, RF, 1998
Key fact: 125 RBIs, tied for 3rd-most in a season in Brewers history
Sure, everyone was hitting a lot of homers in 1998. But … Jeromy Burnitz? 38?
Cardinals: John Tudor, LHP, 1985
Key fact: Led qualified pitchers with a 0.94 WHIP
Tudor had a couple of good years with the Cardinals, but when St. Louis traded for him before the 1985 season, no one thought he would throw 10 shutouts that year.
Cubs: Derrek Lee, 1B, 2005
Key fact: Led qualified hitters with 1.080 OPS
For a brief time in the middle of the previous decade, Lee was so good that there were some debates he might be Albert Pujols’ equal. He certainly impressed the fans, who voted him an All-Star starter over Albert.
Pirates: John Smiley, LHP, 1991
Key fact: Tied for MLB lead with 20 wins
There is absolutely no way you realized that John Smiley once won 20 games. Unfortunately for Smiley and the Pirates, the Braves hammered him in the playoffs, knocking him around for eight runs in 2 2/3 innings in two starts.
Reds: Danny Jackson, LHP, 1988
Key fact: Tied for MLB lead with 15 complete games
Of the pitchers who have won 23 games or more in the last 35 years, Danny Jackson is definitely the name you remember the least.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Luis Gonzalez, LF, 2001
Key fact: 7.9 WAR, 3rd-most among NL position players
Yes, yes, he’s a legend in Arizona. But his 2001 numbers are so outside his career norms that they still stagger. 57 homers! 142 RBIs! .429 OBP! How did that happen?
Dodgers: Shawn Green, RF, 2001
Key fact: 49 HR, most by a Dodgers player in a single season
Sure, he hit 42 the next season, but Green’s 49 homers in 2001 — along with 20 steals, by the way — still feels like something that happened in an alternative universe.
Giants: Atlee Hammaker, LHP, 1983
Key fact: Led qualified pitchers with 2.57 FIP
A few years later, he’d be a soft-tossing middle reliever, but in 1983, Hammaker led the Majors in ERA, WHIP and K/BB.
Padres: Chase Headley, 3B, 2012
Key fact: Led NL with 115 RBIs
This was the year Headley hit 31 homers. He’d never hit more than 14 in any other season of his career.
Rockies: Kyle Freeland, LHP, 2018
Key fact: 2.40 home ERA, lowest by Rockies SP in a single season (min. 10 home starts)
This might be the best pitching season in Rockies history. In 2019, Freeland would have a 6.73 ERA and end up starting six games in Triple-A Albuquerque … where he had an 8.80 ERA.